7 tips to get you into medical school


Getting into medical school and succeeding is getting harder and harder. The MCAT is changing. All you hear about are the successes (which can be annoying). You never hear about the countless number of students who fail to make it.

No matter what anyone says, the education you receive, all of the formulas you remember, and all those books you read as an enthusiastic undergraduate pre-med student actually matter in medical school. “Classical education” does not suit everyone, but it is my belief that this path is the correct one for those entering medicine as a physician. While you may not necessarily use a particular physics equation from your 2nd semester of "physics 101", or run gels in your outpatient clinic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you need to have a strong understanding of these concepts to become an excellent doctor. I believe that the amount of knowledge you retain during these formidable years determines whether you will end up a passable doctor or become an extraordinary one.

For example, you may not remember the exact formula of Bernoulli's equation, but it's imperative in Cardiology or Vascular Surgery to understand what this means when you're talking about hemodynamic pathologies. You may not remember everything from your biochemistry classes but you need to know the fundamentals to understand why "hook effect" may affect the outcome of a study a patient had 10 years ago. These little granules of knowledge will consciously or unconsciously factor in during your formulation. 

So it makes perfect sense to me why there is a "pre-med" requirement and why one needs to excel (not just be good) at these classes that lay the foundation for your success. It is grueling, and at times nerve racking, trying to navigate your way through college to have the opportunity to practice medicine. And so I will try to provide my personal opinion on this process. My path may not be a perfect match for you, but I hope you may pull a few nuggets of wisdom from my thoughts nevertheless.

I will give you seven of my personal tips: 

Tip #1


You need to figure out and decide how much you are going to sacrifice in pursuit of this profession. I apologize if this sounds a bit ominous but this is an important decision you have to make. Some make it unconsciously, while others consciously set aside their time and plan out the choices they make. Anyone you speak with at my stage in this career will speak of all the sacrifices they made at your stage of this journey. 

When I mean sacrifice, I of course mean how much time you will dedicate to the craft. How many hours will you put in? How many rain checks do you have to write? How will you find work-life balance?

Excelling in Organic Chemistry doesn't happen magically. You have to study. You have to put in hours. If it means you can't go to one or two parties over the weekend because you have to figure out how all of these cursed reactions work, so be it. I really struggled with Biochemistry. It was my weakest subject. It did not come naturally to me because it required a lot of rote memorization (which I abhor). But I spent every Sunday learning it, and I eventually received a degree in it.

Tip #2 

Plan your vacations wisely

For my part, I had already planned that for every spring and summer break, I will be doing something to enhance my resume for medical school and beyond. To maintain sanity however, I wanted to do things that served dual roles; that is, do something academic but also give myself leisure time. During my freshman spring break, I started making of list of research opportunities that interested me...while traveling abroad. I went on a medical mission and observed the people living in different countries and their access to medical care. During down times, I emailed all the potential internships or shadowing opportunities for the summer.

During the summers, I volunteered in fields that interested me. First summer, I worked in an Organic Chemistry lab that focused on synthesizing compounds used in medicine. I worked 3-4 hours in the morning, then had fun in the evening. Second summer, I worked for a Neurologist researching hydrocephalus. Third summer, I was hired by said neurologist to run clinical trials on multiple sclerosis drugs.

Tip #3

Letters, Letters, Letters

Get as many letters of recommendations as humanly possible. It is hard to get great recommendations. Therefore, get as many as you can so when you're ready to apply, you can "choose" the best. Yes, you have to waive your rights to see most recommendations but trust me when I say you'll know by the time you're applying which ones will be stellar and which ones will be total crap. By the time I was ready to apply, I had 9 letters ready to go. Out of the 9, 2 of them were incredible and 1 was stellar. I never got to see the letters, but my guidance counselor guided me on this. 

Tip #4


Study for the MCAT starting in your freshman year. If you are pre-med, you probably have the "brain capacity" to learn the stuff you need to learn right out of high school. More often than not, you have taken AP classes already and are ready for the material. There are a LOT of subjects to cover, so start early. 3 years will pass you by really fast.

Tip #5

Learn how to write.

If you took my advice under Tip #2, you should have a lot of things you can talk about.
This is where your classical education will come in handy. You need to write a good essay. You'll be writing a lot of them. You'll be writing one to apply to medical school. You may be writing one for your internship.  You'll be writing one for residency. You'll be writing one for your fellowship(s).

Start reading short stories written by a variety of authors from different walks of life. This will be the key to your essays. Learn their styles. Look at how they engage their audience. If you can write ONE page and convey your passion like these authors have done, you’re in. Read opinion pieces in the New York Times or New Yorker.

I have read so many medical school, residency and fellowship application essays where the content is total crap. Every one of them sounds the same. You need tell your story. Make it compelling. Everyone wants to help people. How are you different? Tell me your motivation and why you can't live without being a doctor.

Weave me a tale. 

I would argue 70% of essays for medical school sound pretty much the same. 20% of them are cringe worthy. 10% are truly unique.

One or two of your experiences during your spring and summer breaks will provide you that perfect scenario to build your story around. I don’t want to read your resume in prose form (PLEASE don’t do this). If the admissions team is reading your essay, we already know you are academically capable of getting through the rigorous curriculum. What we want to know is who YOU are. We want to know what kind of person you are. We are trying to determine if you fit into our culture. We want to know your motivation. We want to know what personal experience(s) will keep you going during the sleepless nights so you can push on and graduate. I want to know why you would be willing to work 36 hours straight, neglect your family and friends, to contribute to our profession. 

Just because everyone asks, for my medical school application, I wrote about almost dying in the Grand Canyon during a nasty snow storm. For my fellowships, I wrote about my Grandmother's life. 

Tip #6

Put money where your mouth is

Plan your participation in clubs and activities carefully. Everyone is in all the pre med societies. Frankly, most people just gloss over that part of your resume. But if you write in your essay that you want to help people with Parkinson Disease, I want to see that you actually tried to help people with Parkinson Disease. You would think this is a no-brainer, but many applicants fail to make this connection.  I’ll be honest with you, I never joined any of the pre-med clubs. I just spent most of my time talking to Parkinson’s Disease patients that visited the neurology office I worked at to try to understand what they went through. This really helped me with not only my essays but it helped me during the interviews.

Tip #7

Rock that Interview

I loved the interviews. For me, this was the easiest part of the whole process. However, some people find it daunting. Relax. We just want to get to know you. We want to know that you’re not crazy (yet) and won’t be a problem to your fellow peers during the stressful times in school. I had 3 “ethics” type of interviews. I’ll tell you the answer to all these scenarios right now. There is no perfect answer. We want to see you think and justify your answer. “Just because” is no longer an acceptable answer. It’s like the Kobayashi Maru.

One school provided this scenario:
You are the head ER doctor. A 90 year old frail male with multiple medical problems enter the ER who is decompensating fast. You start working to stabilize this patient when a second trauma patient comes through the door. This second patient is the Governor of your state. He is in his 50s with no major medical problems but has been gravely wounded. Your resources are limited and you can save only one patient. Which one would you save?

We watch our students struggle through these types of scenarios but what we’re really interested in is your thought process. We want to see if certain biases or prejudice comes out in your thought process. Build your case. Be humane. 

Finally, interviewers will ask you, “tell me about yourself”. BE READY. Give a quick background of your life and tell your interviewer your passions and your motivations. Tell me about your surfing and how it relieves your stress. Tell me about your family, friends, and mentors and what they mean to you. 

This was my brief overview for our pre-med students. If you see me around at conventions, come and talk to me. I will try to give you as much advice as possible. You can also find us at Facebook and ask me your questions!

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Year 1

During breaks, explore the different professions in medicine and get a feel for the culture.  Open up the MCAT prep book. Look at how the questions are worded. Start solving the book. Think about your motivations.

Year 2

Find a mentor and get involved. Think about what you want to write for your essay. Continue to study the MCAT prep book. Get some letters of recommendation specifically for medicine.

Year 3

Hone in on your interests and get involved. Crunch time for MCATs. Get those letters of recommendation. Prep for interviews. 

Year 4

It’s time for you to shine. Get your life together. Finish up your applications and get ready for those interviews.

Good Luck!

Posted by Han Lee, M.D.

Dr. Han Lee, M.D. is a neurologist and movement disorder specialist. He has trained at UCSF, Harbor-UCLA, UCLA and USC. After completing his neurology residency at Harbor-UCLA/UCLA, he has completed two fellowships in Neurophysiology and Movement Disorders. He is interested in Parkinson’s Disease and Deep Brain Stimulation research.

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